Roving Rabbis Help Idaho Jews Keep The Faith

Oct 6, 2011

Boise, ID –Saturday is the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year and the culmination of the High Holy Days. Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz  of Boise’s Chabad Jewish center says community is an important part of the day.

Mendel Lifshitz  “And especially in a place like Idaho where there isn’t that much in the way of Jewish life it’s an even more important time for Jewish people to get together and celebrate our heritage.”

There are only about 2000 Jewish people in the state according to the Census Bureau. Outside of Boise and Pocatello, Idaho’s Jewish community can be hard to come by. That’s why Boise’s Chabad center participates in a program called the Roving Rabbis.

Chiam Cohen and Sruly Treital are from Montreal; both are rabbinical students who spent three weeks in August visiting Jews in cities like Pocatello and Coeur d’Alene and towns like Jerome and Athol.

Chiam Cohen “I must say I think we are a walking advertisement for Judaism.”

Cohen is referring to their full beards, wide brimmed black hats, and black suits. He says it was a culture shock, neither had been in communities with so few Jews.

Chiam Cohen “You ask any local there, you ask is any Jewish people here in the city and they’ll tell you are you crazy, you got to go to Brooklyn for that. But there are Jews, and you’d be surprised, I was surprised.”

Cohen says traveling around the state they realized it can be hard to be Jewish in Idaho. It can be hard to find Kosher food.  He says even practicing the basics of the faith can also be a challenge. That’s where the Roving Rabbis come in. They hold services and cook the meal that begins the Sabbath. And they visit people in their homes.

Treitel recalls a dinner in Coeur d’Alene and what people said afterwards.

Sruly Treital “I know we’re in a little small city and there’s not so many Jews and we’re scattered out, but when it came to this night everyone stood up and they said we are one, we’re one people. They were singing, and they were crying they all said their stories. It was just a beautiful experience.”

Treitel says people exchanged numbers and agreed to get together for Hanukah.  Anna Yemets came to another Sabbath meal in Pocatello with the Roving Rabbis.  She was moved as people shared their experiences of being Jewish in Idaho. Yemets came to live just outside Rupert eight years ago after living in big eastern cities. She says being in Idaho has allowed her to truly connect with her religion.

Anna Yemets “There is not too many distractions, there’s not excessive stimulation of your senses like it is in the big city. It makes for a very serene environment to really do introspection and connect with the divine.”

Cohen says they also met people whose exposure to Judaism stopped at knowing they were Jewish. That was the case with a Portuguese immigrant they met at a service in Pocatello. He told the Rabbis he had never worn the Tefillin. Those are small boxes containing handwritten prayers.  Jewish men attach them to their heads and arms to pray. Cohen and Treitel ran into him at a gas station.

Chiam Cohen “All of a sudden this guy Thomas from Portugal jumps out of the car and says hey, what are you guys doing here. We decided to put on the Teffillin with him. We actually made a little joke. And we called it this is his bar mitzvah at the age of forty in the Chevron gas station.”

Cohen and Treitel visited nearly 40 towns in their three weeks in Idaho this summer. Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz of Boise’s Chabad center, who sponsored their trip compares it to The High Holy days which culminate this weekend with Yom Kippur.

Mendel Lifshitz “The High Holy days serve as a beacon of light to the entire year; the high point where people can reconnect with their faith. And the Roving Rabbis served the exact same mission. To be able to bring out that spark of Jewishness within those people who are living in places where they don’t have the constant opportunity to express that.”

He says two new young rabbis will be back next year to help keep the spark of faith alive for Jews in rural Idaho.